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Finding fifth starter is no small challenge for Irish

Kate Gales | Friday, April 21, 2006

A 300-pound offensive lineman dangling off a cliff is a terrifying image.

Even more frightening is the idea that the only thing holding him up is a teammate.

But that’s the picture that inspires Notre Dame’s starting center Bobby Morton as he prepares to lead a depleted group of offensive linemen into Saturday’s Blue-Gold game.

“There’s a thing called holding the rope and we firmly trust everybody,” Morton said. “Most of us have played together and the guys that haven’t are starting to realize that what we need out of them is that we need to be able to trust them to hold that rope.”

The Irish had three returning starters this spring along with Morton on the offensive line – left tackle Ryan Harris, guard Dan Santucci and guard John Sullivan.

As the Irish look to replace Mark LeVoir and Dan Stevenson on the right side of the line, the reserves are minimal. Paul Duncan emerged as a key contributor in spring practice, and Michael Turkovich will be in the mix as well as early-enrolling freshman Chris Stewart.

But Irish offensive line coach John Latina was unfazed by the low numbers.

“You get to focus more on the ones you have because you have more time to spend on individuals as opposed to a group of twenty kids,” he said. “You take it as what it is and make the best of the situation.”

Duncan said that the individual attention has helped him develop over the spring.

“It definitely helps,” he said. “You don’t have as many people, you don’t have as many things to learn about everybody. … I think I’m definitely growing.”

In addition to the line becoming more cohesive as a unit, the extra repetitions have meant extra conditioning for the linemen in practice.

“Has it been a little tiresome going a lot of reps? It has, I’m not lying,” Morton said. “But it’s not really a concern because of the development we’ve been able to make.”

Morton said the physical aspect has been the most difficult part of the spring. For a center in particular, learning to snap to different quarterbacks has been particularly challenging.

“That’s been the toughest things, taking different snaps with different quarterbacks,” he said.

The development of Dan Chervanick, a former scout team defensive lineman, into a center has helped take the pressure off Morton.

Chervanick, who graduates in May but will return for a fifth year, is unfazed by his position change, attributing much of his development to Morton.

“After being in the program for so long, being there for four years now, you know what to expect, so a position change – especially just from one side of the ball to another – is just learning the technique,” he said. “Once you get that down it’s all downhill from there.”

Although Chervanick switched positions, Latina said the team is starting at a higher level than it did last year, having already worked for a full season in Irish coach Charlie Weis’ system.

“Last year we had to coach so much in terms of assignments because it was all brand new,” he said. “Now there should be a sense of understanding, now we can even take it another notch in terms of the physical play, the effort levels, and make great strides in fundamentals and things like that.”

The number of returning veterans has given Weis more confidence as well.

“It’s going to give some of those young guys a lot of opportunities to get involved in the mix with a number of the veterans,” he said. “I think a key thing, though, with having Dan Santucci and Bobby Morton back, we have the makings of a very veteran offensive line.”

Veterans or not, Morton was hesitant to call experience a strength on the line, pointing out that just because players have logged minutes on the field does not necessarily equate to good play in a game situation. Latina used a similar analogy to Morton’s “holding the rope” idea, although he expressed confidence in returning players who had not started.

“We do have some veterans coming back that I really like, I thought they did well,” Latina said. “But you’re only as strong as your weakest link, so we have to make sure we make great strides in those other positions.”

Any progress will be evident in the spring game, as there will only be one offensive line unit playing. The linemen will play for both the Blue and Gold squads in Saturday’s game, wearing green jerseys, as will the specialists.

“I’m really excited for the green jerseys, to go both ways,” Duncan said. “That will be real fun – it’s sort of like the backyard football, all-time center sort of deal, going both ways.”

Sam Young, Matt Carufel, Eric Olsen, Bartley Webb and Dan Wenger signed with the Irish in February and will arrive on campus this summer.

“Hopefully spring will give us an answer,” Latina said. “We also know we have a lot of good football players coming in in the fall as well.”